As director of the Mashpee Wampanoag Housing Department, Alice Lopez tried to ensure that all her people had homes in their homeland on Cape Cod, where expensive rent forces many to sleep outside so they can pay other bills. And her work didn't end when she left the office.
"She struggled with her own bills, but it was never, 'I need help,' " said her sister Marcia of Mashpee. "It was, 'How can I help this person?' She opened her home to people so they would have a place to stay, or said, 'You can pitch a tent in my yard.' At powwow time, I don't know how many people had tents in the yard. She always wanted to make sure people had a place to eat, a place to wash up."
An activist who was helping guide to completion the Mashpee Wampanoags' first tribal housing community, Ms. Lopez was preparing to leave on vacation with a friend when she collapsed in her Mashpee home, where she was found Jan. 2. She was 49 and tests are being conducted to determine why she died, her family said.
"It's a great loss to the tribe and we're all feeling it," said Cedric Cromwell, chairman and president of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. "She was an amazing visionary and an amazing Mashpee Wampanoag lady."
Jessie Little Doe Baird, who received a MacArthur Foundation grant last fall for her work as a linguist reviving the Wampanoag language, was Ms. Lopez's best friend since childhood, and had planned to leave on the trip with her on Jan. 2.
"She really, really loved life," Baird said. "Alice was a person who helped everybody. She mentored teens, she took homeless people into her home, she helped people make budgets, she helped people get groceries and furniture, and she helped the Wampanoag people keep a roof over their heads."
Accomplished at cultural traditions, Ms. Lopez was a member of the Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers, which performs music and dances throughout the Northeast at schools and events including powwows. She also was a beadwork artist whose work included the crown worn by the tribal princess during the princess contest at each year's Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow.
Such skills, she believed, should be taught freely to all.
"She was always willing to teach someone what she knew," her sister said. "She never kept anything secret. 'Share everything you know with everyone,' she said. Everyone wants to have the advantage, but I don't think that was her attitude. It was, 'Whatever I know, I'll teach you.' "
Baird said Ms. Lopez "was extremely patient, too. She would show anybody how to do anything, and she'd be so patient."
The only thing for which Ms. Lopez had little patience was the economic plight suffered by many Mashpee Wampanoag.
"We have people living in tents, doing winter rents only, or three families living in a single-family home, just so they can be here," she told the Globe in 2007.
At the tribal housing department, she said, "We're constantly dealing with 'Who's going to be evicted today? Who's been neglected by their landlord and has mold growing in their home?' "
Cromwell said "her focus was to get homeless tribal people into homes and houses," a task that meant becoming knowledgeable about federal housing regulations and advocating for the historic rights of the Mashpee Wampanoag. "She was a freedom fighter, if you will, for Native American rights."
Born in Hyannis, Ms. Lopez grew up in Mashpee, the fifth of seven children. Her mother, Carol (Hendricks) Lopez, taught the children arts and crafts. Her father, the late Vincent Lopez, drove trucks and worked as a commercial fisherman, and also taught his children how to hunt and fish.
"He taught us how to survive," Ms. Lopez's sister said.
Early on, so little money was available that the family crowded into a two-bedroom house and used an outhouse before moving into a larger house when Ms. Lopez was a child.
"But we were rich, too," her sister said. "We could walk and roam and be with nature all the time. We had a great upbringing that kept us to our roots."
Ms. Lopez graduated from Falmouth High School in 1979 and initially worked as a history interpreter for the Wampanoag Indigenous Program at Plimoth Plantation.
In the early 1990s, she became a housing advocate in Hyannis for the Community Action Committee of Cape Cod and the Islands. During about a decade with the organization, she rose to become a case manager, a case facilitator, and director of the scattered site shelter program.
In 2003, she launched the Wampanoag housing program, which was the first time the tribe offered housing assistance to its members.
Ms. Lopez was married and had two sons, Tauohkomuk, who is known as Woki, and Kesuqs, who is known as Kees. Her marriage ended in divorce.
"She loved her kids," her sister said. "She loved any kids, but her sons were the world to her."
In addition to her sons, mother, and sister, who all live in Mashpee, Ms. Lopez leaves three other sisters, Marie Stone, Rita, and Naomi Walker, all of Mashpee; and two brothers, Mark of Mashpee and Robert of Ashburnham.
A traditional sunrise ceremony will be held at 7 a.m. Saturday in the Old Indian Meetinghouse in Mashpee. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. in the meetinghouse, and burial will follow in the Old Indian Cemetery in Mashpee.
During their teenage years, Baird said, sometimes she and Ms. Lopez would skip school to go out of town for a powwow. As an adult, Ms. Lopez "was well known in Indian country across the country and into Canada" because of her participation in powwows, Baird said.
"She loved the underdog," Baird said. "If she felt like someone didn't have a voice, then she wanted to be their voice, and she felt that way about everything from people's rights to safety and housing, to people's rights to worship any way they saw fit, to people's rights to hunt and fish within their aboriginal rights. But her friends were not just the Wampanoag people or Indian people. She had a broad spectrum of friends from other countries and across the United States."
Because Ms. Lopez "was full of light and hope and wisdom, she exemplified who we are as people of the first light," Cromwell said. "She was a female warrior for the Mashpee Wampanoag people."
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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